Monday, February 28, 2011

For Want of a "Word"

 For Want of a “Word” A World Is Lost
                                by Jim Rapp

Oh, for a prophet-bard
who understands our great dis-ease;
who can obtained the perfect word
to calm our storm-tossed seas!

Some say the Bardic well is empty;
no thoughts at all rise up
though prompted by persistent lifting
of the diaphragm to fill the cup.

Still others say it is so full
that its artesian overflow
makes the poet’s senses dull;
defeats the very will to know?

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Myth and the Malady of Ideological Purity

Some noteworthy thinker has said, “The only thing that doesn’t change is a rock.” Trust me, he or she was “noteworthy.” I just forgot to make a note of who he or she was. Of course even a seemingly obvious statement like that, propounded by a unnoted “noteworthy thinker,”  is open to debate. Aside from the fact that rocks become cracked and weathered by the environment, there has been some suggestion recently that they may not be as dead, organically, as we had assumed.

But, all of that aside, mankind has had a long fascination with consistency. “Rocks” like Gibraltar, have served as symbols of the revered constancy we profess to desire, sometimes in ourselves, almost always in those with whom we deal. Our politicians and theologians dare not admit to, or display, any sign of change, from their earliest days to the present, or they are castigated as heretics or traitors to the cause. (We want those we approve of to remain “true to the cause” and conversely we love to find “inconsistency” in those whom we dislike.)

Of course we make exceptions – for ourselves, most notably – in various areas of life. Certainly those who treat our illnesses need to be conversant with the latest medical knowledge, even if we might, in the end, ignore their advice in favor of some “old wives” remedy. And we are glad for the new (improved?) approaches to technology that bring us a dizzying flood of electronic and digital gadgets. We – well, some of you – change clothing styles semi-annually to keep up with the “pace setters” our society admires.

But a line is drawn at ideology. For some reason the notion that our philosophies and theologies could ever, or should ever change is abhorrent, indeed heretical – treasonous. We forget that philosophies are the inventions of man’s mind and are as subject to shortsightedness and error as  everything else that man creates.

Our guiding philosophies (ideologies - worldviews) – whether they be theological, political, economic, or social – are thought of as occupying a place on a liberal/conservative spectrum. We recognize that there are ranges involved and different people fall at different points along the spectrum. We aren’t sure if we are describing at a flat plane which implies a wider and wider distance between ultra-conservative on one end and ultra-liberal on the other, or if it is a circle that ultimately brings the extremes of both philosophies very close to each other, as demonstrated in the brutal similarities in fascism, typically thought of as being on the right, and communism, considered to be on the left.

But the assumption is that our particular worldview represents the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth. And nothing could be farther from the Truth! No one wants to have any human philosophy carried to its logical conclusion and applied consistently and universally to all people in every instance. That is evident by the fact that the proponents of any given philosophy are constantly making exceptions for their own comfort and advantage. (This essay is too short to provide examples but any honest person can find them in their own behaviors, or those of others whose philosophy they despise.)

So, ideological purity is a myth, it neither exists nor do we want it to. No human ideology, carried to its logical conclusion will invariably work, in all circumstances, for the common good.

It appears that we cannot escape our propensity (maybe even necessity) to divide ourselves along ideological lines. What we can do, if we have the will, is recognize that all ideologies suffer from the same malady; they are constructs of fallible and finite human minds. They work well only when they are mixed with the soothing ointment of humility and are applied with the cautionary understanding that they may cause more harm than good, in which cases they need to be abandoned.

I know, that sounds like another suspect philosophy – pragmatism. But most of us are pretty comfortable with pragmatism in our day to day lives. We just shouldn’t make a religion of it. Maybe we should stop making “religions” altogether.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Meditation Written Many Years Ago After Driving to Work

        Me and God (And Some Farmer)
                                    by Jim Rapp

I own a beautiful little meadow
            that lies off to the right of the highway
            about a quarter of the way
            between home and work.
Well, it might be more accurate
            to say that I own it, in partnership
            with God, who made it,
            and some unknown farmer
            who undoubtedly makes the payments.

But I suppose God is the major partner.
He has done,
            and continues to do,
            most of the work.
He threaded Otter Creek through its grassy lowlands.
In the spring he greens up the grass and trees
            and sends an army of underground critters
            to hump up its surface.
All summer long it lies like an undiscovered park,
            cool and inviting.
And, each autumn, He spreads it over
            with the glorious colors of Fall.

But this morning was the best of all.
He filled my meadow with a low-lying, frosty fog
            that obscured everything
            but the tops of the surrounding hills.
My heart skipped, and I cried, “Thank you God!”

I must remember to be grateful for the work my partners do –
            to God for His creative skills,
            and the farmer for the payments.
They owe me nothing – mine is a labor of love.

Friday, February 25, 2011

A friend! A friend! My kingdom for a friend!

King David stands tallest of all the kings of Israel, surpassing even Solomon his glorious son. He was a complex man, not a perfect one; capable of arrogance and humility, wisdom and rashness, faith and doubt, strength and weakness, success and failure, magnanimity and pettiness.

The causes of his greatness are the subject of many commentaries and books. One cause stands out to me above the others. David had a friend, a true friend.

Ah, I know, there was Jonathan. And that was a beautiful friendship, tragically one that could not come to full fruition and ultimately was severed by Jonathan’s death in battle.

But there was another, less obvious friend. He was never explicitly described as a friend of David (though one of his sons was) but all the evidence points to a long and enduring friendship. Nathan, a prophet, appears in the story of David’s life at about the time David consolidated his power over all the Tribes of Israel. He may have been with David through his years of hiding from Saul but we have no record of that.

Nathan will always be remembered as the brave prophet who confronted his errant friend, the King, about his double sins of adultery and murder in the famous affair with Bathsheba. It was a dangerous move on Nathan’s part, but as a true prophet of Yahweh and a true friend of the King he could do no other.

David, for his part, could have had his friend killed in an attempt to cover up the Bathsheba scandal. Instead he repented of the sin, and retained the friendship of Nathan. In fact, one of the sons later born to David and Bathsheba was named Nathan. (It is interesting to note that the son, Nathan, born to David and Bathsheba is listed in Luke’s Messianic genealogy rather than Solomon.) Many sons of the prophet Nathan  served David in official capacities during his 40 year reign.

At the end of David’s life Nathan, the prophet was there to defend his Kingship from usurpation and assure that the favored son, Solomon, would be on the throne after David’s death.

Too often leaders surround themselves with yes-men, those who value their position of privilege too much to risk it by confronting the errors of their leader. Eventually the leader is betrayed by the narrow, distorted, and often dishonest perspective of his small, loyal coterie of “friends.”

Every Pastor, President, Prime Minister, Governor, Legislator, Mayor, or head of a corporation needs a prophet-friend like Nathan, someone who will bring them up short when they are straying from the path of righteousness. When we pray for our leaders, as we are instructed to do, we should pray that those who advise them are friends, capable of calling their sins, sin. Capable, too, of pointing them to wiser, productive, more righteous ways of doing their work.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Poem for a Fractured World

         (The Lonely Center)
                        by James Rapp

It is lonely in the center these days.
Everyone has fled to the edges,
Thinking they’ve found truth there,
Or can create it if it isn’t there already.
Time was when only the eccentric
Sought the edges,
Finding there a refuge from some truth
Their oblong souls could not endure,
A place so wide that eccentricity didn’t matter;
Where their wobbling gait disturbed no one,
And each strident voice
Was like a tree, falling silent
In an uninhabited forest.
Now the edges have become
The common habitat
Where minorities
Declare themselves majorities;
Where their “common wisdom” seeks to define
“Common good” in terms that have a ring
Of selfishness about them,
My interest,
My benefit,
My vision,
My country,
My party,
My goals.
We speak of “left” and “right”
As though they define the “edges”
Of our world,
Unaware that a globe
Is made of infinite “edges”,
As every eccentricity,
Every obstinacy,
Every righteousness,
And is accorded,
Its place to wobble –
Or swagger and shout –
And all the while the center,
Lonely and depopulated,
Must preserve the “balance”,
The gravity,
That will hold our world together,
Lest it implode and,
Like a dying supernova,
Inhale its edges,
Silencing forever,
All the strident voices.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Two Pigs and an Owl

Once upon a time two pigs and an owl occupied the same barnyard. They all decided that they needed a new home so they each set about to make one for their family. The first pig wanted a big luxurious house and went deeply in debt to build it. The second pig, not to be outdone borrowed just as much and built a house as nice as that of his fellow pig. The owl, wanting to outdo the pigs, contracted with an eagle to build him a twelve foot by twelve foot mansion in the old pine tree on the edge of the pig pen.

But soon the pigs and the owl discovered that the debt they had incurred to build the houses, the cost of keeping them up, hiring servants to staff them, and expenses for the lavish parties they now felt obliged to host, were more than their incomes could sustain.

They looked at their little pig and little owl offspring and realized that they had created a problem their progeny would have to solve if they didn’t get busy and solve it.

After thinking about it for a while, the first pig concluded that things were already so far out of control that he could never hope to correct it. And besides he couldn’t bring himself to give up his elaborate lifestyle. His children and grandchildren would simply have to find a way to pay the debt. It never occurred to him to tax his muscles; that some hard work on his and his family’s part might eventually, in his lifetime, pay off, or significantly pay down, the debt. Well, the idea did occur to him once, but when he suggested it to his family he nearly had a rebellion on his hands. So they went deeper in debt.

The second pig did not much like the idea of passing on his debt to his offspring, but neither did he want to tax himself to bring in more money to pay it off. “I promised the Mrs. that we could do this without taxing our muscles or our finances,” he said. He decided upon a program of austerity. He would make serious cuts to his lifestyle in hope of paying down some of the debt before he died. But since he had promised “the Mrs.” that they could actually reduce the amount of labor required to support their lifestyle, he felt obligated to take off one day a week. Of course he didn’t want to be on the golf course alone so he granted some of his favorite sons a day off too. So the debt increased at the same time that the house fell into serious disrepair, a problem his children would have to struggle with as they worked to pay off the remaining debt.

The owl’s situation was equally serious. He called a family council. He and his “Mrs.” and all the little owls formed a ring around their massive house, all facing the center of the house. After much deliberation, and with ideas contributed by even the youngest of the owls, they decided upon a plan of action. They would sell off their elaborate home to a family of eagles that had been showing interest in it, and build a home more to their scale. The solution they arrived at was not painless. Indeed they all had to work hard to pay the debt because the price the eagles were willing to pay for the house didn’t equal what they owed on it. I’ll tell you that hurt; it taxed their patience; it taxed their energy; it taxed their income. But they scrimped quite a bit, squeezed themselves into their smaller space, and worked a lot of hours. And before the old owl flew off into the west, or wherever it is that owls fly off to, the debt was retired. He left knowing that his offspring would not be saddled with the result of his foolishness. As he flew away they all hooted after him with joy. Hoorah for the owls!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The New Democracy

We get to define “democracy.” We have put its name on many things throughout our history.

The original American democracy denied the right to vote to all except white males over 21 years of age who owned a respectable amount of landed property. In the colonial era they often had to meet a religious test as well, but our founding fathers wisely eliminated that requirement from our national constitution. It hung on for a while in some of the early versions of certain State constitutions. But we thought of ourselves, even then, as a democracy. (Some said, “republic” others a “republican democracy.”)

There was a time in the early 19th century when Blacks, free and slave, native Americans, and women of all colors were denied the vote. But we called ourselves a democracy. (Jacksonian democracy. Some said Jeffersonian-Jacksonian democracy.)

Through more than half of our nation’s existence, United States Senators were not elected by a popular, democratic vote. Rather, they were chosen by the State legislatures. But we still called ourselves “democratic.”

So democracy is what we say it is. The dictionary definition of democracy is rule by the demos the ordinary people. I would elaborate that to mean that it is a form of government in which the will of the people determines the policies of the government. It provides a fair and honest way for ordinary people (which is all of us, rich and poor, honored or unknown) to serve as leaders and it protects the people’s ability to communicate with those leaders.

Some argue, and I concur, that we no longer have a democracy. That it has been co-opted by the influence and power of political parties backed and dominated by international corporate entities and powerful labor organizations. Even our Supreme Court has sanctioned the selling of our elections to these entities. The average citizen has no voice at all that affects anything. Anyone who doubts this can try getting a message to one of their representatives during a particularly heated debate over some important issue. And even if they hit the jackpot and their message gets read or heard by the representative it will not sway them. They are already bought and paid for by some special interest or cowed into acquiescence by their party leadership. To vote against the wishes of the leadership is to be relegated to the back row of political power. But we still call this “democracy.”

Electoral democracy is a farce. It may not always have been, but it is now. We need to get rid of it. There are better ways to select our representatives. We make up juries that decide on issues as serious as life and death from the ranks of ordinary people. Maybe it is time to build our legislative bodies in the same way. All who are eligible and able would be in a pool from which names would be drawn. Those chosen would be required to serve for a limited amount of time, perhaps two years, as is the case when we draft young people for the military. Without loyalty to political parties or wealthy contributors they might just be able to sit down together and make some decisions based on the merits of the case before them.

It is just an idea. It might need some refinement. But if it worked we could call it “the new democracy.” Think of it, no negative election ads. No ads at all! No party labels. Just a quiet announcement every two years of the men and women like us who had been selected to serve us.  Sounds like heaven to me!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Searching for the Church

I’m struggling to find a place to worship. The church I’ve spent my life in, and all its sister churches who share a conservative theological understanding, has been taken over by conservative politics. I’ve not attended theologically liberal churches but I’m told they are equally secularized but along liberal political lines. So where is one to go who wishes to worship Yahweh God, and Him alone? (See Commandment #1)

A more serious question, one I raised in a blog two days ago; where can a God seeker go to find a simple declaration of the Gospel of Christ, unencumbered with ideological distractions?

Americans profess that all citizens (Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, even Satanists for that matter) have a right to hold political positions that may, or may not, be compatible with those of their fellow religionists. They have the right to express their ideas, work on their behalf, vote for those who will uphold them. That is the nuts and bolts of our free society and we need to support those rights for everyone if we want to maintain our own freedom.

But Christ did not establish his Church in the world to endorse the political ideologies of any era or to be endorsed by them. It may surprise some to know that all political ideologies are inventions of man, and as such are deeply flawed, riddled with the propensity for sin that afflicts those who invent them.

The Church should be a place where followers of Christ withdraw from the dust and din of political argument, commemorating God’s love for the world, the cosmos, all of it. He loved it, not because it was good, but because it had become so evil that only His love could redeem it.

The Church should be a place where people of flawed competing ideologies lay them aside and enter a holy sanctuary, unarmed, to embrace their brothers and sisters in genuine Christian love. It should be a place to receive the bread and wine of communion without rancor and without desire to defend or propagate some mere political system.

The Church should be a place where conservatives, liberals, and all those between, submit their ideologies to the scrutiny of the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit. That cannot happen if their particular church is an echo chamber for their own prejudices and preferences. It is through the ministries of an unencumbered Church that the Holy Spirit can speak to us prophetically, redeeming us from the sins that capture our hearts as a result of imbibing the “spirits” of a fallen world.

So where do I find such a place? I have no answer. Every place I go, partisanship is likely to  raise its ugly head: in bulletin inserts, flyers stuck under the windshield wipers of my car while I am at worship, politically motivated and biased “prayers” for some leaders, but pointedly, not for others, in discussion and study groups, and sadly, in some churches, from the pulpit.

Are these kinds of gatherings Christian? Only God can judge. Are they engaging in Christian fellowship and worship? Not really; in their wish to promote the sanctioned ideology they forget that others in their midst are distracted from their worship of God by the sometimes subtle, sometimes overt, attacks on their political convictions. Is there an answer? There is, only if the Church really wants to hear it. But it is a radical idea – the Church could be the Church again, and let mere political parties be political parties.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Perspective on Heroes and Heroines

It has been hard to escape the drama playing out in our State Capitol these days. Thousands of state employees are rallying to protest an attempt by the Governor and the Republican legislators to take away their long held union right to bargain for wages, benefits and conditions of employment.

But the scene in Madison reminds me of the thousands of American heroes and heroines who have put their life and limb and livelihood on the line for causes that, in their time, were considered radical, dangerous, anti-American. They made great sacrifices for causes like: freedom from  England’s tyranny, abolition of slavery, abolition of child labor, the horrid conditions of prisons and mental hospitals, rights and education for immigrants, Civil Rights for black Americans and other minorities, oppression of native Americans, opposition to unpopular wars, voting rights for women, protections for the un-born. In every case the forces of the status quo, the holders of power and wealth, opposed them, demonized them, beat them, imprisoned them, even killed them. Here in the United States of America!

Other heroes and heroines, young men and women, have fought for their country in the belief that their service and sacrifice of life and limb, would help to preserve a land in which freedoms, fought for and gained by past heroes, could survive to inspire the rest of the world.

The protestors in Madison are descendants of the coal miners, railroad workers, steel plant workers, automobile and rubber workers, who faced company “goons” seeking to intimidated them with threats, and firings, and blacklisting, to say nothing of clubs and guns. Governors and Presidents supported the company bosses crushing the protests with soldiers and police. Time and again their hopeful, ragged, tumultuous cause was lost and they returned to work in dangerous conditions for low wages, awaiting future brave leaders who would rally the workers again.

Finally, during the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt and a Democratic Congress gave workers the right to form unions and collectively bargain with their employers. But the battle wasn’t over; they had to win every concession with protests, strikes, sit-ins, and other united actions. And every time the same defenders of the status quo opposed them, armed with the classical weapons of intimidation: slander, brutality and murder. But they persisted, and each victory improved the standard of living for thousands of their non-union co-workers as well as their own.

Despite those efforts, government employees were restricted from forming unions or bargaining with their employer. But in the late 1950s a limited number of Wisconsin’s government workers were permitted to form unions and bargain for improved wages and working conditions. Since then most Wisconsin government workers have gained those rights, and each improvement of wages and benefits for government workers raised the fortunes of non-union workers as well.

But that may be ending now before our eyes. History may repeat itself. The workers may lose again. Faced with the overwhelming power of Government to summarily abolish rights, long held and long fought for, they may ultimately go back to their jobs, less secure, demonized, dispirited, and under-appreciated. The same Governor who stripped them of dignity and power will make condescending statements (as he already has) about the “good, conscientious state workers.” He will grant exemptions to those he needs to favor in order to protect his person and his power. He will gradually reduce the power and remuneration of those he devalues. It is an old, old story with which students of labor history are sadly familiar.

But even if they lose, workers will rise again. Not immediately. Maybe not in our lifetime. But someday! It is not for nothing that we call those earlier champions of freedom, Heroes and Heroines. They are dead, and it is safe to celebrate dead heroes. But the marchers in Madison will die too, becoming heroes to those who take up their cause in years to come. They will not look demonic, threatening, subversive from that distance. They will be Heroes, marching, by their thousands, into the history books; into the Working Man’s Hall of Fame.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Good News vs. Christ-less Christianity

In the fifth video in his series on Christian witnessing, Go Fish, Andy Stanley raises a serious issue. In his sermon, “Muddy Water,” Stanley posits the proposition that most people who reject Christianity are not rejecting Christ, that in fact they may never have had a true and clear presentation of the Gospel of Christ. He says, rightly, that the Gospel is a simple message given in John 3:16, that “God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes on him shall have everlasting life.” God loved and gave. If any one believes he/she will receive the gift of Eternal life.

That is it! That is the Gospel, and the whole purpose for which Christ came into the world. Stanley contends that few people ever get to hear that message unencumbered by the scores of other issues that Christians throw at them: creationism vs. evolution, pre-destination vs. free will, pre-trib vs. mid-trib vs. post-trib, end-time predictions, abortion, gay marriage, etc.

And further, Stanley argues that the average Christian avoids talking to people about her/his faith because she/he doesn’t feel competent to explain or defend all those ancillary issues. There is nothing to "defend" about the Gospel. It merely needs to be declared, presented.

I agree with Stanley’s point. In fact I’ve wondered, sometimes, if followers of Christ should not find some way to identify themselves other than “Christian.” The designation, “Christian,” has become a tarnished label. That is a shocking thought. But there are “Christians” who reject the simple formula that Stanley indentifies, believing that mankind is capable of saving itself through humane behaviors. And there are "Christians," as Stanley points out, that have layered so many issues over the central Gospel message that it cannot be heard through the din of doctrinal argument.

I can’t prove that Genesis is a literal scientific record of creation. I don’t know if the rapture will come before, during, or after a period of tribulation. I don’t know which end-time guru has it right, or if any of them do. But I know that “God so loved the world that he gave his son so that all who believe on HIM shall receive everlasting life.” That is the good news that everyone deserves to hear – deserves the right to receive or reject.

It is completely understandable why many of our non-believing friends are repulsed by what they perceive as the political bigotry, arcane religious dogma, and bizarre spectacles that parade under the banner of Christianity. There may be a place in the life of the church for some of those things but there is no place for them in the presentation of the good news of salvation in Christ. We need to put Christ back into “Christian,” or quit using the term altogether. And equally as important, we need to put Christ back into our witness and toss out all those other things that get in the way.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Hezekiah Syndrome

Hezekiah is called a “good king” of Israel. Could be, but I have never liked him that much. I’m not ignorant of why he is called a “good king.” Anyone who wishes to read his bio can find it in 2 Kings, chapters 18  - 20. For those who are not interested in reading it, but trust me to do it for them, I’ll summarize his life in a few of brief paragraphs.

Hezekiah got his “good king” ranking for two reasons. First he “did what was right in Yahweh’s eyes” which means that he cleaned up the worship of Judah, destroying the shrines and artifacts of local cult worship, and restoring the Hebrew Temple worship in Jerusalem. Second, during the crisis in which the army of the Assyrian king, Sennacherib, surrounded Jerusalem, Hezekiah stood firm, put his trust in Yahweh for deliverance, and was vindicated when Yahweh miraculously delivered Judah from the fate that had befallen their sister state, Israel, a few years earlier at the hands of the Assyrian, Shalmaneser.

Then the story took a turn. Hezekiah became deathly ill. Isaiah the prophet came to him with bad news from Yahweh. He would not recover and he should “put his house in order,” which meant making sure the preferred heir succeeded him on the throne. But Hezekiah was not one to go quietly into the great unknown, as his recent tussle with Sennacherib had shown. He “turned his face to the wall” and pleaded with Yahweh, weeping bitterly and reciting to Yahweh what a good king he had been. Before Isaiah could even get out of the palace, Yahweh turned him around and sent him back to assure the distraught king that his prayer had been heard and he had been granted an additional 15 years.

So Hezekiah was in good health by the time a delegation from the Babylonian court arrived with gifts to celebrate his recovery. Hezekiah was blown away by this gesture from the court of a great kingdom that rivaled that of the Assyrians. He guided the delegation through his palace, his storehouses, his kingdom, and presumably even the Temple, impressing them – he hoped – with his wealth and status.

When the prophet Isaiah got wind of Hezekiah’s foolishness he confronted him, asking where the delegation had come from and what he had shown them. “From Babylon,” Hezekiah admitted proudly, “I showed them everything!” Isaiah, was unimpressed. He told Hezekiah that those Babylonians would return someday to take all that Hezekiah had shown them . . . and that Hezekiah’s own “flesh and blood” would be hauled away to serve as eunuchs in the Babylonian court. Hezekiah’s response was, “The word of Yahweh that you have spoken is good.” Can you imagine?

And here is why I’ve never liked Hezekiah all that much. He said that the “word of Yahweh . . . is goodbecause he thought, “At least there will be peace and security in my lifetime.” God save us from grandfathers like Hezekiah!

Ah yes! And God save us from being grandfathers like Hezekiah, unconcerned about the hardships inflicted upon our “flesh and blood” by our selfish behaviors, as long as there will be “peace and security in [our] lifetime.” We need to break the Hezekiah Syndrome!

I read once that the credo of an economist is that one should leave the world no richer than they found it, meaning that they came in broke and they should leave that way, having spent whatever wealth they gained to make the world better. In the states east of the Mississippi River a system of water rights exists called Riparian Water Rights. A land owner is required to care for a waterway running through his land so that it reaches the next landowner unimpeded, unpolluted, and as usable as it came to him. It seems to me that the Riparian principle should apply to all our uses of the resources given to us. We should hand on this world to our “flesh and blood” in such a condition that it can bring “peace and security in their lifetimes” too.

Hezekiah was a “good king” in the eyes of those who measured him by the effects his “goodness” had on his own generation. The prophet saw that he had bought his generation’s peace and security with the “flesh and blood” of generations yet to come.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Babel’s Undoing

                   Babel’s Undoing
                        by Jim Rapp

We’ve started a collection of great-grandchildren,
A second is on the way, I hear, soon to arrive.
It makes me remember those days when
Chris arrived, the first grandchild of five.

His little “Hi”, with falling final tone,
Exactly matched his mother’s.
But now that he is fully grown
I hear the accents of his father.

I wonder at the force that guides selection,
That draws the streams together,
Undoing Babel’s sad confusion,
Bringing, blending, far and near together.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Living in a World That is Out of Our Control

Amazing things are happening in the Middle East. Regimes are falling, or trembling on the verge of falling. Our wired world gives us the chance to watch and even participate if we like. But what it doesn’t do is give us control over the outcomes. How we’d like to be in control!

And even here in Wisconsin events are swirling at a pace hard to imagine even a week ago. The Governor is afraid of his own citizens, dodging in and out of guarded, controlled meetings, warning the National Guard of insurrection, establishing increased security at the capitol, rushing legislation into being lest he lose his moment of control. He may have the votes to get his way, but alas, he acts like one, not really in control. (One does not call the police if he is in control.) Control is an illusion. He may intend to do a lot of good; he may, instead, be out to harm his enemies; but nothing that he does will end the way he imagines. It’s a law! He is not in control!

I think this world is structured (by the One who will, someday, set all things right) so that we will never be in control. We may have the illusion of control at times, be able to move the pieces on the chess board from one place to another – giving favors to the knights while repressing the pawns – but we lack the perspective to really determine the outcome of such actions. We live on a tiny slice of time, our life trailing out behind us, filled with slice-sized successes and slice-sized failures, but few lessons to guide us into the next slice of time. And the future comes to us only one tiny slice at a time. Beyond that, we can only guess what may be. (That is why we like to have a National Guard at the ready; to put us back in control when our plans don’t turn out the way we’d like.)

How can we be expected to build a world, one slice at a time? It isn’t fair! How we’d like enough time to be in control!

I rather like it though, the way it is. I love to see proud men tripped up in their pride, surprised at the cascade of troubles they have brought upon themselves, staring down the barrel of their own gun, now turned on them. I always liked the old radio cop shows where the villain doesn’t get gunned down outright but is forced to listen to a little sermon revealing to him all the sins he has committed, making him feel a little of the terror his victims had felt, before he is dispatched. That always seemed like justice to me.

Until . . .

Until I realize that I am a proud man, in some eyes a villain, almost always wishing I were in control. Ahem! It is time to pray . . .

“Not my will by Your's be done . . . on earth as it is in heaven." Amen.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Day Late for Valentine’s Day – Three Poems

A Haiku Excuse by Jim Rapp

Inspiration came,
but too late to celebrate
Valentine’s this year.

            Love’s Day
                       by Jim Rapp

Love on special days is fine,
but better are the times in which
our love, the day defines –
a subtle but defining switch.

A Haiku for Valentine’s Day by Jim Rapp

A red Valentine
Read infolded in your arms
Read, “My Valentine!”

Monday, February 14, 2011

Down With Doors

Doors are often used as a metaphor for a way of entry or a means of exclusion. Much of our life is spent trying to open doors or keep them closed.

Do you remember banging on a door behind which your brother, sister, or friend was engaged in a coveted activity from which you were being excluded, simply because they wished to exclude you? The harder you banged, the more vociferously you wept, the more they sensed their superiority and enjoyed your discomfort.

The urge to be on the inside is almost genetic. I am reminded of two books, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle, and C.S. Lewis’ chilling portray of this human desire in That Hideous Strength. Both authors show that being in the circle carries moral hazards for our souls. Often what is going on behind the door is not good for us or for anyone else.

Sometimes secrecy appears to be appropriate and exclusive membership in an endeavor seems to be required. National security, that much used tool of government – too often, most often, abused – might be a case in point.

And there are ad hoc “societies,” formed for the admirable purpose of plotting an event to honor some unsuspecting person on a momentous occasion. It is pleasant to be in the circle planning such events. Of course, we can use our privileged place to express, overtly or implicitly, our superiority over those not worthy to be let in on the secret. Or worse we can take pleasure in torturing the one to be honored to the point that they express anger at being shut out of our secretive process, and are subsequently chagrinned by our “generosity” and their ungracious behavior.

I’m convinced our world could do with fewer “doors”; would, indeed be a better place with fewer of them. Doors enable the worst in us; allow us to indulge, privately or in groups, appetites,  attitudes, and actions that are destructive to ourselves and others around us.

We can’t eliminate every door. It wouldn’t be practical. Besides, those who love doors won’t let us. But we can put a sign on those we control, saying, “Welcome, come on in!” Better yet, leave your doors standing open wide. Best of all, take them off their hinges and use the wood for some good purpose. Down with doors!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Saving the World – A Sunday meditation for Christians

I wish I knew how many times I’ve changed my mind about Christian engagement in politics. I’ve always believed Christians have the right to engage in political activity according to their lights and their conscience. What I’ve wavered on is whether they should take positions as Christians. In other words should they label their political ideology “Christian” thus insisting (or at the very least implying) that all who do not share it are not being true to the faith?

We have no trouble naming “Christian” politicians who have humiliated themselves, their families, their political party, and their faith community, after making claims to be “born again” Christians, Evangelical Christians, Conservative Christians, Liberal Christians . . . you get the point.  Those are sad situations. They tarnish the very faith, claimed as the underpinning of their political ideology.

But even if “Christian” politicians, and those who express political views as Christians, never commit crimes or indecencies, they, nonetheless, create a barrier between themselves and others whom they should be influencing on behalf of their faith. When politics and religion mix, politics corrupts religion and makes it onerous. If the political causes we advocate are worthy and necessary they do not need a Christian label  to validate them. If they are unworthy, adding the Christian label will not make them worthy; it will only degrade the Christian label. We’ve seen this result too many times.

If you question that, think for a moment of how the political actions of radical fundamentalist Muslims affects your view of the Muslim religion generally. Why should it be different with Christianity?

There must be a way for Christians in a democratic society to live their faith, exercising their right to expression and action, without tarnishing their Christian witness. There is and it is a matter of priority. Jesus made a choice between a political career and his greater mission; he chose the greater mission. He said “I did not come to condemn the world (politics), but that the world, though me, might be saved.” There was much that Jesus could have condemned in his generation. Instead he condemned only the hypocrisies of those who cloaked their politics in false righteousness; those who used God’s name in vain to validate their agenda.

All  we who put our faith in Christ as our Savior are Christian brothers and sisters regardless of the political party we support. If though, in the name of our faith, we condemn (or, God forbid, demonize) those who disagree with us – if we deny the sincerity of another Christian’s faith – we grieve the Spirit of God, make ourselves judges in God’s stead, and risk causing another believer to lose his or her faith in Christ.

God is not likely to ask us, in heaven, which party we supported. He is likely to judge whether our lives drew others to his Son. Let us, like the One we serve, engage our world, not to condemn it, but to “lift up” the One who came to save it.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

One “Click” Per Day

In his book, Chased by Light, Jim Brandenburg created a wonderful “coffee table edition” of ninety photographs taken in the wilds of northern Minnesota. Brandenburg resolved to take only one picture a day for a ninety day period. He spent much of his professional career as National Geographic photographer but decided that he needed to take a sabbatical from all that “shooting.” He restricted himself to one “click” per day. Some days that perfect “click” presented itself in early morning light, sometimes at midday. Other times it occurred when the low-hanging evening sun cast long shadows across the landscape. One photograph was taken after dark with Brandenburg’s wife shining a flashlight across the face of a waterfall. Were there days when he thought he had used his “click” too soon? In the case of the waterfall, he thought he had waited too long. But his book is a testimony to his patience and good judgment.

Our days can turn into a frantic attempt to capture every pleasure, every beauty, every advantage presented to us. What if we decided not to “click” so often but rather to choose carefully the opportunities on which we would invest our time and energy? Perhaps not “one click per day,” but far fewer “clicks” than we normally take.

When  our life is over those who loved us will gather for a last farewell. A display of photographs may depict significant times in our life. But more meaningful than those photos displayed will be the stories told by friends, family members, colleagues, and even near strangers. Each will relate a “click” – a time when we focused our “camera” on them, creating a lasting memory.

One “click” per day, for 70 years, creates over 25,500 memorable moments.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Two Haiku for 2-11-2011

A Haiku for Egypt by Jim Rapp

ancient sands shifting
unearth sixty year old wounds
bind them up with hope

A Haiku for Wisconsin by Jim Rapp

Egypt’s freedom day
Walker threatens Guard alert
Egypt, weep for us


There is a familiar adage, “A lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.” Undoubtedly the same could be said for he or she who edits his or her own work.

Yesterday, while attempting to edit some things I’ve written I became convinced that, in addition to the hazard of being a fool, there are other pitfalls too. And first among them is that, once you’ve written something, it becomes flawless in your eyes. No amount of reading can help you notice that omitted word. And no expenditure of time is sufficient to locate all the goofy, unintended words, that the spell checker approved. And so great is one’s confidence in what they have written that they can blithely overlook the red-squiggly underline of an embarrassingly misspelled word.

But paradoxically, the contrary is true too; once you’ve written something, each subsequent reading of it serves to convince you that it has no value whatsoever. Ideas that inspired you hours or days before seem increasingly trite. Wonderful “turns of a phrase” become blots on the page. Colorfully illustrative examples begin to appear in black and white, or even gray.

How important it is to have fresh eyes examine the work we do. They can see what has become too familiar for us to see. An independent editor can serve both as critic (in the good sense of judging objectively) and as encourager.

But is isn’t only writers or artist that need “editors”. Each of us are writing narratives that we will “publish” for a very demanding audience – our families, friends, and associates – to read. We need to “self-edit” our thoughts and words and actions of course, but we also need faithful and truthful “other-editors” to catch those errors of which we have become too tolerant to see. And we need them to encourage us when we begin to be too hard on ourselves.

Edit me, O God, and know my heart; spell-check me and know my anxious thoughts. Proof read me and see if there is any offensive way in me, and make me a book  worth reading.” (Psa. 139:23-24 radically paraphrased)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Photo Viewer

My daughter Michelle gave me a digital photo viewer for Christmas a year ago. I removed it from the box and read the instructions. After loading a number of digital photos into its internal memory I tried it out. Wonderful!

But I’m a gadget guy with more external hard drives connected to my computer than I can admit without embarrassment, and each needs an outlet for its power supply. So I really had no outlets left to dedicate to the photo viewer. It sat, lifeless, on a shelf in a bookcase across from my desk.

A few weeks ago, I grew tired of the guilt I felt each time I saw it sitting there unused, suggesting that I didn’t value it. So I got busy and “sorted” through my thousands of digital photos, selecting 720 of them that portray some of the natural beauty I have seen in the last dozen years since I’ve become a “photographer.” I loaded them on a little 1gb SD card and put it in the viewer. Now those pictures cycle randomly for my enjoyment every time I’m at my desk. I’m amazed at how often I can remember the precise place and time I took a photo – even of a single flower – who I was with, and the joy that was shared on that occasion.

The photos, and the photo viewer, serve to remind me of a triple blessing – the blessing of a daughter who knows how to give meaningful gifts, the blessing of friends and leisure, and the blessing of a Creator who has placed me (us) in a world of incredible beauty; beauty that persists even in the face of all that mankind has done, and continues to do, to efface it.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Who's Fault is It?

            Who’s Fault is It?
                 by Jim Rapp

“It’s cold today!” I said.
“That Wind is cold!” Alice replied.
"Don't blame the Wind," I said.
“The Wind wouldn’t be so cold
       if it didn’t have to pass over It
       if It were not so cold today.”

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

First Offering

At seventy-four years old I'm launching my first blog. I intend to share thoughts and perhaps some creative ideas on this blog over the next months. I have no idea how much longer I'll be a resident of this earth but as long as I am I'll do my best to be engaged with it. My thoughts, my likes, my dislikes, and my hopes will form the basis of the postings here. Come see, from time to time, what is on my mind.